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Landfall at Midway

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I have been remiss in updating you, faithful readers. That’s what happens toward the tail end of a cruise. Things that had seemed new and exciting become normal, and there seems to be less to share. But you’re not out here getting deadened to this life, and it’s not fair for me to let it happen on your behalf.

We’re steaming today. That means we woke up traveling and we’re still traveling. No stops to get on land or even get in the water. We’re en route from Midway to Laysan, a distance of about 370 miles (that’s a distance I googled, so take it with a grain of salt). That’s about 320 nautical miles. At 10 knots, that means it’ll take 32 hours to get to Laysan. We left Midway around 5pm yesterday, so we should get to Laysan sometime tonight, ready to launch a boat with several people to assess whether the camps’ systems are in good enough shape to drop the NOAA and Fish and Wildlife Service scientists off. That’s about all I know about tomorrow, so I’ll tell you a little about yesterday.

I got to go ashore on Midway!! Midway is near the end of the chain. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), it has three personalities: the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the Battle of Midway National Memorial, and part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. In addition, there’s a real live runway, which is available to any aircraft that’s having a hard time getting across the Pacific. Keeping that runway open is what accounts for most of the personnel at Midway. We were picked up from the Sette on a FWS boat and transported to the main island, Sand Island. Most of the World War II action took place on Eastern Island, but Sand Island is where the main runway is and where all the humans stay now. There are about 60 people on Midway, most of them working for a company connected with the runway. We were given a quick overview about the island, a map, and a ride to the pub (no alcohol today, but a nice foosball table and an air-conditioned place to hang out).

I made a beeline to North Beach. All the other beaches are open only to monk seals, sea turtles, and birds. But I wanted to see North Beach anyway, to check out the marine debris monitoring sites. Okay, it’s also a gorgeous beach in its own right. This shot reminds me of a beer commercial, which is pretty sad.

A project to develop a protocol for monitoring beach debris has been going on for a couple years now, and I’m actually a small part of the team, but I thought I’d never get up here to check it out. The monitoring, which is carried out by FWS volunteers, is a bit like an International Coastal Cleanup that you may have participated in, in that the debris is removed and entered onto a data card. However, the removal and data collection are done by trained volunteers, and the cleanups are done at fairly precise intervals (about every 28 days) at five established 150-meter stretches of beach. In that way, it’s more like the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program, which concluded in 2007. Two stretches of North Beach are being monitored, but I just looked at one of them. The beach had been cleaned the day before, but I still found some fairly impressive pieces of debris. The volunteers, who had been there a couple months, weren’t surprised.


The east end of the monitoring site. If you squint, you can see a big float
kind of buried in the surf zone. It wasn’t there a day before.


Typical debris picked up in the marine debris monitoring
study on Midway Atoll.

A friend from Korea had asked me if we ever saw debris with Korean or Japanese markings on it. I checked out every item that seemed to have writing, and all but one of them used an alphabet that’s Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. A couple companies I looked up were Taiwanese or Chinese. So the answer is, yes. Debris moves around a lot.

After I finished at the beach I strolled around looking for albatross chick carcasses. Let me tell you, with over 400,000 pairs of Laysan albatross at Midway, there are plenty of chicks hatched every year. Not all of them make it to adulthood. Talking to some of the folks that live and work on Midway, it’s a pretty amazing experience when the albatross are there (they generally arrive around Halloween, and the first few had arrived when we were there). The density of birds, the constant and varied noises they make, the primacy of birds over humans; it would take some getting used to. Many things threaten the Laysan and black-footed albatross, including habitat degradation, invasive species, contaminants, and bycatch in fisheries. But certainly the most visible and heart-wrenching is plastic pieces. This is from the Conservation Action Plan for Laysan and Black-footed Albatross published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “Albatross ingest plastic while feeding at sea, either mistaking it for food or incidentally ingesting it with other food items. Adult albatrosses feed this plastic to their chicks. Chicks will pick up some plastic themselves at the colonies, but the majority is fed to them by their parents. Just prior to fledging, albatross chicks regurgitate boluses of indigestible matter, including squid beaks and plastics.” Some chicks die before they can puke up the plastics, or maybe the bolus is just too big to get rid of. It makes for an arresting photo. I saw many piles of bones with little or no plastic, but it wasn’t hard to find ones with a substantial amount of plastic.


My carcass had mostly fishing line, but others
had bottle caps or plastic pieces.

This funnel in the visitors center is filled
with lighters found in albatross nests or carcasses.

The whole community of Midway Atoll is pretty interesting. Imagine living out here, almost 1200 miles from Oahu. At least they have a mall, a bowling alley, and a slightly rough-looking petanque court.


The mall was closed when I walked by. But I hadn’t
brought any cash anyway.

I love petanque! Unfortunately, no one was playing when I passed by.

And self-serve soft-serve ice cream. It may not have quite matched up to the Sette‘s shave ice, but it went down good. You can make local calls to Oahu. I heard a few people from our group saying they could live here. Do you think you could? If you give it a try, take a tip from me. Don’t say “Was that a rat I saw?” when you see a mouse. They’re a little sensitive about rats, since rats were a major predator on the birds but were successfully eliminated from the island.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

One thought on “Landfall at Midway

  1. Aloha Kris — I am so glad that you got to visit Midway and check out one of our monitoring sites. We are looking forward to having you back on Oahu for our meetings next week. Good job in talking about the hard work that is going on by the volunteers and staff on Midway. Safe journey home and I will email you more information about next week. Seba Sheavly

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